Iowa has thousands of soldiers in Iraq. About ten percent of the state’s population is uninsured. Its manufacturing sector has seen jobs leave the country, as other parts of the labor sector have been filled by undocumented workers. But the matter that seems to be the political gut check for presidential candidates in Iowa is ethanol.
In truth it may not be the make or break issue that many campaigns think it is, but few of the candidates have dared to spurn the state’s leading distillate.
Romney: "God sure loves Iowa."
Clinton: "What we need to think about now is how we create energy farms. "
Huckabee: "Alternative forms of energy. "
Biden: "These little kernels here will take us about ten years down the road. "
Dodd: "For fiber, food, and energy. "
Obama: "Family farms are getting squeezed out. "
Richardson: "Renewable sources -"
Romney: "In cellulosic ethanol and corn-based ethanol. "
The role of rural America in the nation's Presidential nominating process is nothing new. In 1976 a little- known peanut farmer from Georgia used the Iowa Caucus as a springboard to the Presidency. More than twenty years later, the top Democratic and Republican candidates still embraced agriculture and ethanol.
Vice President Al Gore: “We need to support ethanol.”
President George W. Bush: “I’ve just come from a big farm bureau convention where I shook a lot of hands and I’m focused on your caucuses.”
The stature of renewable fuel in Iowa is unmatched anywhere else in America. But the nation's leading state for both corn and ethanol production evokes controversy with its status as a political stepping stone.
Jerry Taylor: "It's a presidential talking point because the first vote for president will be in Iowa. There's a lot of farmers there, and they're all very interested in ethanol. It's an important issue for farmers because ethanol and ethanol subsidies in the Federal Ethanol Program is a way of making farmers richer."
Jerry Taylor, a Senior Fellow from the Washington-based think-tank CATO Institute is a top critic of ethanol policy, especially during the Iowa caucuses.
Taylor: "It's about saving Middle America, the Heartland, and the family farm and making the economic life of farmers a little bit easier than it might otherwise have been. That's the core of the appeal.
"The social benefits alleged for ethanol disappear - For instance, we're told that ethanol is good for the environment. Well, it does reduce one constituent, carbon monoxide, but it increases a whole host of other constituents like hydrocarbons, nitrogen-oxides, and other air toxics.
"If you look at data from 1960 and 2005, what you find is that corn harvests were twice as variable as oil import volumes. In other words, by moving from foreign oil to ethanol, you're trading off one set of risks, geopolitical risks, for natural risks because harvests aren't always great, the sun is not always shining, the rain is not always optimal."
Taylor's criticism is not isolated. Some major newspaper editorials have slammed candidates for voting against ethanol on Capitol Hill and quickly "pandering" to farmers in Iowa as they run for President. Even Hollywood has taken a shot at the Iowa Caucuses. The NBC drama, "The West Wing," characterized ethanol as the ultimate political pander.
Josh Lyman: “You walk out on that stage and come out against ethanol, you are dead meat. Bambi would have a better shot of getting elected President of the NRA than you will have of getting a single vote in this caucus."
The award-winning series profiled hypothetical candidates struggling to endorse ethanol shortly before the Iowa Caucuses. Ultimately, one candidate, played by actor Jimmy Smits, endorses ethanol despite his own misgivings.
Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits): "Ethanol is good for our economy."
While another candidate, played by actor Alan Alda, rejects the so-called ethanol pledge.
Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda): "Now, I know that the ethanol subsidies have been good for some of you, but mostly it's a windfall for huge conglomerates. I'm embarrassed by it and you should too."
But Hollywood's characterization of an ethanol oath is widely disputed in Iowa.
Monte Shaw: "I think it's more of an education process than someone just coming here and pandering. Iowans are too smart, we're not single issue voters."
Monte Shaw, Executive Director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says Iowans benefit from the caucuses but adds the real economic profit is from ethanol.
Shaw: "They come here and they travel to all 99 of Iowa's counties. They go into a lot of small towns where there is an ethanol plant or a biodiesel plant and they see a new truck stop and they see a new diner and they see a new house being built. They've absolutely transformed rural America."
So how do the candidates of 2008 actually stand on ethanol? The top five Democratic contenders all support an aggressive renewable fuels mandate and the current ethanol import tariff.
But some critics have blasted Senator Hillary Clinton for changing her position on ethanol. Clinton voted against a 2005 energy bill due to concerns that ethanol production would replace the gasoline additive MTBE and raise gas prices for her constituents. She now supports ethanol as a nationwide solution for energy independence.
The top two Republican contenders in Iowa, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, both support a renewable fuels mandate and an ethanol import tariff. Rudy Giuliani supports tax subsidies for ethanol but has yet to publish his position on mandates. Other Republicans like Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, and John McCain are critical of government intervention. Instead of mandates, these candidates have called for a free market in alternative energy.
McCain: "I trust Americans, I trust the markets, and I oppose subsidies."
Senator John McCain's position on ethanol arguably is the most controversial of any candidate. In 2000 McCain blasted ethanol subsides.
McCain: "Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out, and everybody here on this stage, if it wasn't for the fact that Iowa is the first caucus state, would share my view that we don't need ethanol subsidies. It doesn't help anybody."
Bush: "I support ethanol and I support ethanol strongly, John. And I'd support ethanol whether I was here in Iowa or not."
In 2008, McCain's views have slightly changed. He still opposes subsidies for both ethanol and oil but supports the import tariff.
McCain: "Subsidies are a mistake and I don't believe that anybody can stand here and say that they're a fiscal conservative and yet support subsidies which distort markets and destroy our ability to compete in the world."
McCain has yet to reach one of the top three positions in recent Iowa polls and according to Jerry Taylor, you can partially blame his views on ethanol.
Taylor: "I think that even if John McCain now promised to sacrifice every child in the United States to the corn god, it wouldn't help him in the Iowa caucuses."
Despite the opinions of newspaper editorials and Hollywood script writers, Iowa is still embraced by a wide number of lawmakers in Iowa and in Washington.
Bush: "This is a good bill, and I'm pleased to sign it."
Last week's energy bill included an aggressive provision for 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022.
Think of all the people who do not represent the Midwest who just voted for this renewable fuel standard, and a few of them actually aren't running for President of the United States.
Huckabee: "And it's renewable."
Clinton: "The largest ethanol plant - "
Biden: "$60 billion into rural America - "
Obama: "Make money through green technologies."
Romney: "You're lucky to be in a place that has such extraordinary agricultural resources."